‘Poor visibility’ hampered Channel rescue effort in 2021 migrant accident
The accident, in which 27 people including a 7-year-old girl died, is the worst on record involving migrants in the Channel
UNSUCCESSFUL attempts to rescue migrants from a sinking boat in the Channel in November 2021 were hampered by poor visibility and confusion over locating the right vessel, Britain’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) said on Thursday (9).
The accident, in which 27 people including a 7-year-old girl died, is the worst on record involving migrants in the narrow seaway separating France and Britain. Two survivors were recovered from French waters and four people remain missing.
In the wake of the accident, the two countries traded blame, with a French migrant charity saying the boats’ occupants had called both French and British authorities but were only sent help when a French fisherman raised an alert 10 hours later.
The MAIB said the “wholly unsuitable and ill-equipped” inflatable boat began taking on water in the early hours of November 24 and some of the migrants made distress calls on their mobile phones to both French and British authorities.
The MAIB, which focussed its investigation on the UK response because it was not granted access to information held by the French, said a British search and rescue boat and helicopter failed to locate the dinghy.
“The UK search and rescue response … was hampered due to poor visibility and by the lack of a dedicated aircraft conducting aerial surveillance,” it said in a report published on Thursday.
“Coastguard operators were heavily reliant on the limited information passed to them by French authorities and calls from the occupants of the boats themselves to try to identify the number of boats attempting the crossing, their location and their level of distress.”
Three other migrant boats were found in UK waters while searching for the sinking boat, MAIB said, all with similar numbers of people on board to those reported to be on the stricken craft, which proved a distraction.
In the afternoon of November 24, a French-registered fishing vessel reported sighting bodies in the water, which triggered a French search and rescue operation with UK support, it said.
In May, French judges charged five soldiers for not assisting people in danger over the deaths of the 27 migrants.
The MAIB said it had recommended British and French authorities work together to improve the transfer of information between their coastguard agencies.
British transport minister Mark Harper said on Thursday the government would set up an independent inquiry into the incident.
The Channel between France and Britain is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and currents are strong, making the crossing on small boats dangerous.
On the day of the deaths, 1,227 people attempted to cross the Channel, the British government said. More than 25,000 people have arrived in small boats so far in 2023.
A plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which prime minister Rishi Sunak hopes will stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, is embroiled in a court battle.